The most bloodthirsty Medieval torture device, the Iron Maiden, was the product of two Victorian minds.
19th century art collector Matthew Peacock pieced together the Iron Maiden from real historical odds and ends.
The Nuremberg maiden, for example, probably used a medieval cast-iron head of the Virgin Mary as its face!
The Iron Maiden was meant to “show the dark spirit of the Middle Ages in contrast to the progress of humanity.”
For much the same reason, the Victorians were obsessed with the chastity belt.
Peacock gifted his torture device to a museum, where it was a huge hit.
Meanwhile, philosopher Johann Siebenkees spread stories about the mother of all Medieval execution devices.
In the year 1515, Siebenkees described, the German city of Nurnberg executed a coin-forger with a coffin-like device lined with iron spikes.
Siebenkees wrote (in a guidebook!):
Slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulder, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him, and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.
Most likely not true is the kindest way to describe that account.
Around the 19th century, iron maidens – and chastity belts – started popping up in museums, thrilling and titillating visitors around Europe and the United States.
These included the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, probably the most famous, which was built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.
Even before its destruction, it was widely acknowledged as a hoax.
A copy of the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg is ironically now a valued artifact itself.
It was made in 1828 as decoration for the “Gothic Hall” of a patrician palace in Milan, and has been held in a private collection since 1974.
The Iron Wife
The Victorians are hardly the first to spin stories about iron maiden-like torture.
Ancient Greek historian Polybius claimed that the Spartan tyrant Nabis added a matrimonial touch.
He constructed a mechanical likeness of his wife Apega.
When a citizen refused to pay his taxes, Nabis would have the faux wife wheeled out.
“When the man offered her his hand, he made the woman rise from her chair and taking her in his arms drew her gradually to his bosom,” Polybius wrote.
Both her arms and hands as well as her breasts were covered with iron nails … so that when Nabis rested his hands on her back and then by means of certain springs drew his victim towards her … he made the man thus embraced say anything and everything. Indeed by this means he killed a considerable number of those who denied him money.
Iron Maiden or Coat of Shame?
The “coat of shame”, “barrel of shame” or “drunkard’s cloak”may have been the inspiration for the iron maiden.
Victims were forced to wear a wooden barrel in public where they would be insulted, humiliated and pelted with rotten vegetable.
Some weighted along the lower rim and around the neck opening to to add corporal punishment to the already severe public humiliation.
In 1641, the diarist John Evelyn wrote that in Delft, Holland the Senate House contained
“a weighty vessel of wood, not unlike a butter churn, which the adventurous woman that hath two husbands at one time is to wear on her shoulders, her head peeping out at the top only, and so led about the town, as a penance for her incontinence.
The Drunkard’s Cloak was used in 1862 on unfortunate soldiers in the American Civil War. An eyewitness:
“was extremely amused to see a rare specimen of Yankee invention, in the shape of an original method of punishment drill. One wretched delinquent was gratuitously framed in oak, his head being thrust through a hole cut in one end of a barrel, the other end of which had been removed; and the poor fellow loafed about in the most disconsolate manner, looking for all the world like a half-hatched chicken.
The Victorian addition of the spikes certainly made torture more..pointed.